SI Vault
 
Built to Last
Peter King
December 08, 1997
The Bucs make a statement, The downward spiral of the NFC East, Jaguars' Johnson, a coveted quarterback
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
December 08, 1997

Built To Last

The Bucs make a statement, The downward spiral of the NFC East, Jaguars' Johnson, a coveted quarterback

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

YEAR

TEAM

RUSHES

YARDS

YARDS
PER RUSH

YARDS
PER GAME

1997

Broncos

296

1,489

5.0

114.5

1996

Packers

400

1,416

3.5

88.5

1995

Cowboys

442

1,772

4.0

110.8

1994

49ers

375

1,338

3.6

83.6

1993

Cowboys

423

1,651

3.9

103.2

1992

Cowboys

345

1,244

3.6

77.8

1991

Redskins

348

1,346

3.9

84.1

1990

Giants

388

1,459

3.8

91.2

1989

49ers

372

1,383

3.7

86.4

1988

49ers

441

1,588

3.6

99.3

1987

Redskins

441

1,679

3.8

111.9

As last week dawned, you couldn't blame the Buccaneers, pewter pants and all, for feeling like the hapless Bucs of old. Skepticism was running wild after Tampa Bay's 13-7 loss to the Bears on Nov. 23, and more trouble was looming: games at the Meadowlands against the Giants and the Jets sandwiched around a home date with the Super Bowl champion Packers.

But these aren't the same old Bucs. Two days after the debacle in Chicago, rookie running back Warrick Dunn, who was raised by a single mother, donated more than $100,000 for down payments on four furnished homes for single-mother families. The gesture was a notable one for a member of a franchise that has traditionally struggled for acceptance in its community. The following day the organization took a big step to secure its future by signing one of the league's most underrated players, outside linebacker Derrick Brooks, to a four-year extension. On Sunday the Bucs made a statement on the field. They went into a hostile environment, faced a strong defense and a good running game and beat the Giants going away, 20-8.

"There was a lot of symbolism in this game, and this week," said strong safety John Lynch, who in September signed a $1.7 million-a-year extension that will keep him in Tampa through 2000. "We started the week with the same end-of-the-world attitude around town that always exists when we lose a game we shouldn't have. But instead of figuring the whole thing's broken, we knew we'd just hit a bump. We came into Giants Stadium, a tough place to play, faced turnovers and momentum swings, and every time things started to turn, we met the challenge."

Dunn followed his magnanimous gesture early in the week with a 120-yard running day against the Giants, and road-grading fullback Mike Alstott scored two touchdowns, one on a soft-handed reception of a Trent Dilfer pass, the other on a Ping-Pong run. Brooks was everywhere, intercepting a feeble Danny Kanell pass, deflecting three others and racking up eight tackles. Tackle Warren Sapp terrorized Kanell with four pressures, while end Chidi Ahanotu had two sacks. (He has a team-high 10.)

The Bucs have the pieces in place to win 10 games a year into the next decade. Only two of Sunday's starters, guard Jim Pyne and free safety Charles Mincy, are free agents after the season, and the Bucs are confident they can lock up Sapp, their most significant player who will be eligible for unrestricted free agency after the '98 season, by next spring.

Last week, as word spread about Brooks's $3.25 million-a-year extension, coach Tony Dungy tapped the linebacker on the shoulder during prepractice stretching exercises. "I'm happy for you," Dungy said. "We're going to grow old together here."

Old and successful.

The NFC Least

"The NFC East is an enigma," Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason said on Sunday after his team's 44-42 loss to the Eagles. Wrong. Enigma suggests mysterious, not woeful, which is what this division has become. Tennessee is 7-6 and likely to finish out of the AFC playoffs. Tennessee is 4-0 against the Least, and its average margin of victory in those games was 15 points. From 1982 to '95, NFC East teams won eight Super Bowls, an unprecedented era of dominance since the title game was first played in 1967. Here's what has happened over the last few years: The division's playmakers aren't producing, and the offensive lines, once the strength of teams in Dallas, New York and Washington, are horrible. When the line is inconsistent, a team is like a yoyo, as the Redskins have discovered. Washington belted Jacksonville and Detroit but has lost at home to Baltimore and St. Louis.

Three weeks ago the Eagles were playing for next year. This Sunday, with a win over the Giants at the Vet, Philadelphia would be tied for first and thrust into the stunning role of division favorite with road games against the Falcons and the Redskins left. It's remarkable that a team playing for 1998 just before Thanksgiving could be hosting a first-round playoff game. Welcome to football's most mediocre division.

Continue Story
1 2 3